Koch Industries, the second-largest privately held company in the U.S. run by right-wing billionaire Charles Koch, is uncharacteristically making national news this week by remaining one of few Western companies to continue operations in Russia. The Koch operation and the more nefarious activities of its founder generally fly under the radar of traditional media, but after Judd Legum’s Popular Information newsletter broke the story on Monday, the The New York Times, CBS News, Newsweek, Marketwatch, Daily Beast, and others followed up.
The attention resulted in a rare public statement from the conglomerate Wednesday afternoon in which Koch Industries' COO, Dave Robertson, tried to paint the decision to remain in Russia as somehow virtuous. “The health, safety and wellbeing of all employees is our top priority, including our employees in Ukraine, Russia, and thousands more across Europe at various Koch companies,” Robertson wrote. Therefore, “we will not walk away from our employees there or hand over these manufacturing facilities to the Russian government so it can operate and benefit from them ... Doing so would only put our employees there at greater risk and do more harm than good.”
Which is pretty much bullshit. Other companies have faced that dilemma and acted ethically. For example, McDonald’s is continuing to pay the 62,000 Russian workers in the hundreds of stores there it has shut down for the duration. "The conflict in Ukraine and the humanitarian crisis in Europe has caused unspeakable suffering to innocent people,” McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski explained in a letter to employees. “As a system, we join the world in condemning aggression and violence and praying for peace."
That makes Robertson’s assertion that the “horrific and abhorrent aggression against Ukraine ... violates our company’s values and principles, which are grounded in the fundamental truth that the system most conducive to human wellbeing, progress, civility and peace is one based on respect for the dignity of the individual, the consistent rule of law and the right to freely exchange goods and services” ring pretty hollow. Particularly since Robertson refuses to even name Russia as the aggressor.
Robertson insists in his statement that “Koch companies are complying with all applicable sanctions,” but as Legum pointed out, all of the dark money political groups supported by Charles Koch oppose the broad economic sanctions against Russia.
One of those entities is the Stand Together Foundation. Dan Caldwell, its vice president for foreign policy, tweeted Monday that it “supports targeted sanctions against Russia,” but that “broad-based economic sanctions rarely achieve their desired policy outcomes.” In fact, he went on to argue that “the overly-aggressive use of sanctions actually strengthens the authoritarian regimes the United States is trying to punish while increasing the suffering of ordinary people living under those governments,” and that “overuse of sanctions also threatens American financial dominance.”
Likewise, Will Ruger, president the Koch-backed group American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), has advised against sanctions and against any help to Ukraine at all. “The United States can and should do very little for Ukraine,” Ruger said in a March 2 podcast for Reason magazine. “Ukraine simply doesn't matter to America's security or our prosperity.” Ruger went on to say that sanctions make it “much harder for actually for Russia to stand down” because Putin does not want “to appear to cry uncle to this pressure.”
Then there’s Concerned Veterans for America. Caldwell, the Stand Together guy, also functions as a senior adviser to this Koch-backed group. It too has argued against sanctions, publishing an open letter advising American officials to show “restraint as America responds to Russia's immoral invasion of Ukraine ... We should avoid actions that may aggravate the situation further or have damaging repercussions to American prosperity.”
”Principles always matter, and they matter most when they are under pressure,” Robertson said in the Koch Industries statement. The principle at work here, as journalist Jane Mayer suggests, is profit.
Mayer, who wrote the definitive exposé of the Kochs in Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, tweeted: “Given how small Koch says its Russian operation is, hard not to see this as purely symbolic, sending the message that all Koch’s talk of rights and liberty means nothing. Making money is what they value.”